‘Light illuminates the reliefs, creates shadows and reflections, flattens and highlights the surfaces, and thus confers existence on the painting. Therefore Castellani could not fail to gradually approach its splendour through the use of the absolute colour white, which radiates, slides across and unifies the surface and at the same time functions as a register of total freedom’ (Germano Celant quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Milan, Fondazione Prada, Enrico Castellani, 2001, p. 17).
Credited as one of the most important precursors of minimalism and conceptualism, Enrico Castellani was an instigator of a movement in the 1960s that took a radical evaluation of pictorial practice. With works like Superficie bianca, Castellani swept away any hint of figurative representation or the romantic sensibility of the prevailing Arte Informel to establish a timeless, iconoclastic art that that did not presume to convey any message other than the pure structure of what it was. Castellani's Superfici (surfaces) were the elegant solution and material response to the artist’s call, first voiced in the magazine Azimuth that he founded in Milan with Piero Manzoni in 1959, for an elemental art based solely on the concepts of space, light and time. In a move similar to the autonomous technique applied in Manzoni's Achromes, where blank canvases dipped in kaolin came to form self-defining entities that assert their own materiality and existential presence, Castellani developed an equally authorless approach in the creation of his Superfici. The present work is a classic example of his signature technique. Its surface bristles with a staggered grid of peaks and troughs constructed via a taught membrane of canvas stretched over a framework of nails. The artist has removed himself from the equation, distancing himself from the act of creation as well as from any content so that the work’s orientation is externalised. Rather than being an illusory window into an interior space, the two-dimensional surface has been transformed into a three-dimensional object that verges on the sculptural.
Superficie bianca was created in 1965, a period that saw Castellani gain ever-increasing international recognition for his radically reductive yet surprisingly sensual art. The short-lived gallery and magazine that he founded with Manzoni had placed Castellani at the epicentre of Milan’s dynamic contemporary art scene and forged connections with like-minded artists around the globe. As the decade progressed, his work was exposed to viewers throughout Europe, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. He participated in the Venice Biennale of 1964, followed by a solo presentation there in 1966, when he received the Gollin award for young painters. One of the most significant and best-known exhibitions that he contributed to during this era was The Responsive Eye, which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965 – the same year Superficie bianca was executed. This enormously popular show brought together works by international artists who were using entirely abstract means to stimulate unexpected responses in the eye and mind of the viewers. The media latched onto this powerful new direction in contemporary art practice, collectively dubbing it op art, much to the discomfort of the many and varied artist participants.
Although very much a product of the conceptual and aesthetic concerns of their time, Castellani’s monochromatic relief paintings escaped the pitfalls of fashion that befell some of the work presented at The Responsive Eye. This is due to the absolute simplicity and purity of his field of visual research. He avoids adding graphic illusionism or disturbing colour relations to the canvas, and instead operates on the space around the picture to engender perceptual reactions in his audience. Extending on the example set by Lucio Fontana’s slashed paintings, Castellani generates a rigid sequence of protrusions and depressions to activate the otherwise pure white surface, rendering the space encompassing the object and viewer perceptible to the senses just as John Cage’s influential silent musical compositions had once drawn attention to the dynamic flux of ambient sound surrounding each performance. These interventions produce the illusion of broad ranging tonal and perspectival effects that shift and vanish according to the location of the viewer and the ambient light of the environment. The impersonal austerity of Superficie bianca is therefore a participatory experience. It may be a static white-painted canvas marked by only by a sequence of peaks, but the external influences of light and shadow and our own cognisance of these phenomena in relation to space and time imparts Castellani’s objective formula with unpredictable subjective results.
This work is in effect a tabula rasa, a ground zero, from which to re-establish the most fundamental aspect of painting as being a place of encounter between the mind and the body rather than a passive entity for the outpourings of the artist’s soul. The canvas, for Castellani, became a pure entity, representing nothing, but simply being. It is in this way that ‘surfaces’ such as Superficie bianca come to stand not as paintings but as what Donald Judd described as ‘specific objects’ in his seminal 1965 essay of the same name, in which he famously singled out Castellani’s Superfici and Yves Klein’s Monochromes as being the two most important series of works being made in Europe at this time. Situated beyond or outside the realm of painting, such works were, Judd argued, ‘specific objects’ that stand and assert themselves in a new space – one that is part material, part conceptual. They are objects that materially assert themselves in a specific time and space, but which also point to, invoke and are left open to the immaterial and infinite realm of the void.
This sense of infinity was intrinsic to Castellani's use of monochrome surfaces, which he felt established a limitless and dynamic field that manages through its own non-specificity to become universal. ‘For the artist,’ Castellani declared, ‘the need to find new modes of expression is animated by the need for the absolute. To meet this requirement, the only possible compositional criterion is that through the possession of an elementary entity – a line, an indefinitely repeatable rhythm and a monochrome surface – it is necessary to give the works themselves the concreteness of infinity that may undergo the conjugation of time, the only comprehensible dimension and the yardstick and the justification of our spiritual needs’ (E. Castellani, ‘Continuità e nuovo’, Azimuth no. 2, Milan, 1960).